Your Language Is Changing, Because Internet

22:57 minutes

Credit: Johanna Mayer

Are you a fluent texter? Are you eloquent with your emoji? DOES WRITING IN ALL CAPS SOUND LIKE SCREAMING TO YOU? Maybe you’ve become accustomed to delivering just the right degree of snark using ~~sparkly tildes~~… Or you feel that slight sense of aggression when someone ends a simple text to you with a period.    

In her new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch explores some of the ways that online communication has changed the way we write informally, from the early days of computer bulletin boards to today’s Facebook and Twitter memes. Read an excerpt from Because Internet

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Segment Guests

Gretchen McCulloch

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and writer. She gave a presentation on linguistics and emoji at the 2016 SXSW conference. She’s based in Montreal, Canada.

Segment Transcript

MOLLY WEBSTER: For the rest of the hour, how online communication has been changing the way we write informally. So when did you first get online? Was it way back in the early days of the computer bulletin board or during AOL? 

I think I signed online for AOL Instant Messenger. And then you gradually have to pick up the lingo. Lol meant someone was laughing. It didn’t mean lots of love. And then, there’s writing in all caps. You discovered that might have been a bad thing unless you really were shouting. 

Or maybe you’re just a person who has grown up online. You’ve always had text. You’ve always had emails. You understand the ins and outs of Snapchat. And you know what emoji to drop into a message to convey your meaning. 

So Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist. You may have seen her articles in Wired. She co-hosts the podcast Lingthusiasm, and she’s the author of the new book, Because Internet, Understanding the New Rules of Language. Welcome back to the program, Gretchen. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Hello. It’s so fun to be here again. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: It is so fun to have you. I felt like when I was reading this book, that you had been listening in on my day-to-day conversations with people, and then were like, OK, let me analyze this for you, Molly. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Yeah, I’m sorry. I’ve actually had you bugged, Molly. I hate to break it to you on radio, but. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: I feel like so many people reading this book would think that. I mean, I think it’s one thing to observe a thing. What made you think, oh, I can analyze this? We can dig in here about what’s happening with language because of the internet. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: I find, as a linguist, I have a hard time turning that linguist part of my brain off. And maybe I don’t want to. So if you go out with me to a pub or something, and you say something, I might pause you and say, wait a second. Can you say that vowel again? 


GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: I’m just kind of that type of person. And so I spend a lot of time on the internet, as many of us do. And when I see stuff going on online, I just want to analyze it. It’s very exciting for me. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Mmm. And so, I mean, what made you focus on the internet? You were obviously noticing something there. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: The genesis for thinking, OK, there’s actually maybe a book here, or there’s some sort of longer thing here, came from an article that I wrote for the now sadly departed website, The Toast back in 2014. I miss The Toast still. 

And I wrote an article for them, analyzing the linguistics of the doge meme. That was the one with the Shiba Inu a few years ago. And I got to the second-last paragraph of the doge meme article, and I found myself thinking, huh. There’s something interesting here. 

I was comparing doge with the earlier generation of your classic lol cat memes and thinking, there’s an additional layer of irony in internet writing now. There’s this level of double meaning that we use now that you didn’t see in the early days of the internet, and that it seems like the time is right to try to expand on that again. 

So I was feeling like there was more there. And that was actually the first time that a literary agent contacted me for writing that article, and so the timing worked out really well. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: That’s great. So I’m Molly Webster, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m here with Gretchen McCulloch, an internet linguist. And you’re telling us all about the things that we do every day, but don’t even realize we’re doing them. 

So I often think about linguistics as something that’s spoken. I don’t think of it necessarily with writing, but you’ve brought the two together here. How has the internet and writing helped you understand the way we speak better? 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Yeah, exactly. A lot of linguistics is still focused on the spoken word because it’s seen as, that’s the bit that hasn’t been filtered, hasn’t gone through an editor. It hasn’t been altered by someone else. It just comes out and that’s what you say. That can help us understand how the human mind creates language, if you go in its least-filtered form. 

But of course, that’s only true of some kinds of writing, that it gets through an editor. And the informal kind of writing, the kind that happens online in our texts and our tweets every day, that doesn’t go through an editor. That does give us access to, what are people doing with their first rush of intuition? 

And it gives us access to some of the very same interesting things about how we use language. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: So when you’re looking at the internet, what were some of the key– I don’t know– grammatical rules or linguistic rules that you see playing out online? 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: One thing that I’m really fascinated about is the use of punctuation and other typographical resources to convey tone of voice. So you can use a question mark to indicate something’s a question. That’s kind of the boring use. But you can also use a question mark to indicate a rise in intonation at the end of a sentence, when it’s not necessarily a question, but it indicates that rise. 

And then on the flip side, you can say something that is syntactically a question, like, what could possibly go wrong, but not put a question mark there. And that indicates a wry or a deadpan or an ironic rhetorical question. 

And so this four-step possibility, do you use the question mark or not, is it syntactically a question or not, gives rise to a whole bunch of layers of possible meanings and interpretations. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: That’s like I feel like I use exclamation points, not really because I’m excited, but because I’m trying to be sincere and show the way things are done. So before we keep talking, I’m going to say we need to take a break. We’ll be back with more internet linguistics in a moment. 

This is Science Friday and I’m Molly Webster, sitting in for Ira Flatow. I’m talking with internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch. She’s the author of the new book, Because Internet, Understanding the New Rules of Language. 

So Gretchen, when we left, we were talking about punctuation identifying tone, and I want to go to one of our callers. He has a very interesting question about ellipses. Nate from Dayton, Ohio. 

NATE: Hi, Molly. 


NATE: I was wondering if you could explain the use of ellipses on the internet. It seems to vary from generation to generation. 


GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Yes. There is absolutely a generational different in ellipses. And it’s one of my favorite things that I figured out when I was writing Because Internet. 

So the brief nutshell version of what’s going on, and we’ll get into why in a sec, the brief nutshell version of what’s going on is, you have predominantly older people who use ellipses as a generic separation character. So between any sort of utterance or phrase, you might say, hey, dot, dot, dot. How’s it going, dot, dot, dot. Do you have time to chat soon, dot, dot, dot. 

And this is used as a way of separating remarks. They might be full sentences. They might be phrases. The younger generation also separates their sentences and phrases with a generic mark, and this is generally, for them, the line break or the message break. 

So you send them each as a new line. Hey, new line. How’s it going, new line. Just want to know if you have some time to chat. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: That is what my text messages look like. I just want to say. One sentence. One sentence. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: I got this from– 

MOLLY WEBSTER: One sentence. One sentence. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: I got this from your phone. I did not. You have some older people who also use the hyphen or the dash as the generic separation character as well. The ellipsis is common. Sometimes, you see a string of commas as well, which is an even older thing to do. 

But you have a couple different types of generic separation characters. So everybody has their generic separation character. It just depends which one you use in the different generations. 

The thing is, is that because the younger generations don’t use the ellipses as a generic separation character, because they’re using line breaks, they instead have a different meaning for the ellipsis. And that is indicating something left unsaid, so trailing off meaningfully. 

And that thing can be a lot of different things. Sometimes, it’s, I’m actually a little bit annoyed, or I have some reservations here. Like, OK, dot, dot, dot. Like, I guess I can come pick you up, dot, dot, dot. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: I just got uncomfortable while you did that. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Sometimes, it could be flirtatious. It could be like, oh, wow. It could be insincere. It could be passive-aggressive. There’s a bunch of different things. But what it does is, it hints at something left unsaid, deliberately hints at that kind of thing. 

The problem comes when these two sets of norms clash into each other, because if you are using ellipses as your generic separation character, as long as you’re communicating with someone else who also does that, you’re doing totally fine. 

But if you’re using ellipses as your something-left-unsaid character and you’re talking with someone who uses it as a generic separation character, you think they’re being incredibly passive-aggressive, when they just think they’re being normal. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Well, this is funny because one of the things people talk about is that tone is so hard to express through text. Is that something you would agree with or do you just think that’s just because of clashing? We all have tones. It’s just when they clash that’s the problem. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: I think we’re developing ways of expressing tone through text. And it really depends on what internet generation you belong to and who you’re thinking of as your imaginary authority when you’re composing a text message. 

So I see the biggest divide here between people who are thinking, what is the other person going to assume about my tone, which tends to be younger, but isn’t exclusively, and people who are thinking, what is the correct thing that I could be doing? What is the imaginary standard, the imaginary English teacher or the imaginary copy editor in your head? 

So if you’re writing to an imaginary English teacher, if you’re writing to an imaginary copy editor, you’re not thinking about how your tone is interpreted. You’re thinking about an external list of standards. 

And the big clash comes from people who have one system communicating with people who have a different system, because the imagined audience that you have is different. And you’re writing differently because of that. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: And do those systems, those different systems, come just because of age? Are they there because of geography? Or somehow, something else is causing different systems to come into play? 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: This is why I like talking about what your formative internet social experience was like. So you could have somebody right now who’s, say, 40 or 50, who joined the internet before there was even technically the worldwide web, like, joined back in the BBS bulletin board system dialup, pre-dialup days, or was on Usenet, or was on chat rooms, or these kinds of old systems. 

And they’ve been using internet-mediated tone of voice for 30 years. And that 40 or 50 something is going to be very different from a 40 or 50 something who joined, say, around the year 2000, or who just was dragged kicking and screaming onto the internet two years ago. 

Especially in that older group, it’s really hard to tell from someone’s age what their internet social experience was because there’s a big divide between early adopters and mid adopters and late adopters in those older demographics. 

Within the younger groups, I think it’s a lot more homogeneous, but in the older groups, there are huge differences, and you can’t always assume that just because someone’s on the older side means they don’t have this facility with internet media to tone of voice. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: So you’re aligning more with experience on the internet than with age. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: And especially, not just experience on the internet in general, because if all you use the internet for is booking flights and looking up the weather, that’s not a social internet for you. 


GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: And it’s totally reasonable to look at the weather. I look up the weather every day. But that doesn’t make the internet social for you. 

So if you make friends via the internet, if you have relationships in your life that you keep up via the internet and via the text-based medium of the internet, and then you think of the internet as a possible way to be a full person and communicate tone of voice and communicate important ideas for you, then you’re on an internet that you figured out a way to communicate a sense of tone of voice, even if it’s not exactly the same as everyone else. 

So the question is the social potential of the internet for you. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Yeah. So we’ve talked a little bit about tone and how things can vary in different pockets of the world. If I think about speech, I think about the fact that people have accents while they talk. Does that show up in informal internet communication, at this point? 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: There are some really interesting studies using geo-tagged tweets to look at how people tweet differently in particular areas. And you can find some things that map up with the traditional dialect maps that were made by doing telephone surveys or by sending people around in, quote, unquote, word wagons to do these surveys. 

So for example, you can find, on Twitter, that people in the American south are more likely to use y’all. People in the north are likely to say, you guys. Like, Pittsburgh has yinz, its own little pocket. And you can map on some of these things we found in traditional dialect, like map findings, on to what people are saying on social media as well. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Mmm. So I want to bring in a caller. We have Tom from Ames, Iowa. Tom, what’s your question? Oh, Tom has left us. Well, let’s try– oh, I like this one. Let’s try Jordan from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, since we’re talking about yinz. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: If I say anything wrong about yinz, then, I’ll find out. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Jordan, what’s your question? 

JORDAN: Hi. I love the fact that you used yinz, by the way. So I just had a question about the use of images in text messages. So I know that infographics are really a great way to express information really quickly. And since we’re more of a pictographic culture these days, what is the way that pictures play into text messages, like memes or so on? 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Yeah. Absolutely. The analogy that I really like using for images, whether that’s gifs or memes or emoji, even emoticons, making pictures out of punctuation characters, is, they’re a lot like a digital version of the gesture. 

So you can send someone, like, good job, with thumbs up. You could put a physical thumbs up or you could send a thumbs up emoji or gif or something. And that reinforces your message. It’s pretty positive. 

But if you just say to someone, good job, with the middle finger, you’re now really changing the interpretation of the exact same words that you’re saying. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Yeah, you’re being really friendly. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: So really friendly may be really ironic. So you’re doing this additional layer of interpretation on top of what’s being said. And you can do that with physical gestures. And the most popular emoji are the hand and face and heart emoji, which are also very gestural. 

The most popular gifs have people or humanoid animals in them. You could do a gif that’s just a tumbleweed rolling by, but it’s not as popular as something with a face. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Yeah. Well, so in your book, you talk about memes. And I equate memes with a very 2000 teens kind of– like the ends of the aughts. But you say memes have actually been around for a while, just in different ways. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Yeah. It’s really interesting, the continued evolution of the meme. Which one do people think of as prototypical memes says a lot about where you were on the internet at various times and more about where you are with respect to the culture. 

So the earliest example that we have– the term was coined by Richard Dawkins, but it was a social science term at the time. The example that we have of it in the internet sense from the first time comes from Mike Godwin, who is better known as the guy that came up with Godwin’s Law. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: What’s that? 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: One of these laws, kind of like rule 34 or something, that was one of the early internet things. It was on in the ’90s, and Godwin’s Law says, the longer a discussion thread continues, the probability of a gratuitous Hitler or Holocaust or Nazis interpretation converges to one. In other words, like everything becomes a Hitler analogy. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: The longer the conversation, you’ll eventually get to Hitler. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Eventually get to Hitler. And Godwin came up with this as an experiment in social engineering because he was annoyed at this tendency. He felt that it trivialized the actual horrors of the Holocaust. And he wanted to get people to stop. 

And so he decided to make it a meme so that people could call each other out on doing it. Be like, oh, here’s Godwin’s Law again. To be like, this is a bad argument, and we should be taking very seriously when we do and do not make this comparison. Not that you can never make this comparison, but we shouldn’t be doing it about how bad the pizza was. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Right, right, right, right. That seems fair. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Yeah, and so he seeded this on a bunch of Usenet forums back in the day, and then a few years later, he wrote an article for it in Wired, talking about this experiment that he’d had and the fact that this meme was now replicating on its own. Other people were citing Godwin’s law. It wasn’t just him. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: That’s so interesting. That’s so interesting. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: And the meta article introduced the term, meme, to an internet audience. Like, OK, this was a meme I came up with. We need to be careful what we’re propagating with memes. 

It’s really interesting because Mike Godwin’s still around. This wasn’t that long ago. He has a Twitter account. And a couple years ago, he tweeted that, just to be clear, this law that I came up with only applies to gratuitous comparisons. And by all means, if someone is actually being a Nazi, you can definitely call them that. So it’s really interesting. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: That’s so great, Gretchen. So I’m Molly Webster and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m here in studio with Gretchen McCulloch, and she’s telling us about the internet and linguistics. Gretchen, one of the things that came up in your book is the role that tools like spell check and autocorrect have in helping us evolve language. 

Because I find, at this point, personally, I actually find them very annoying. I’m constantly trying to turn them off. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Yeah, absolutely. It’s fascinating because on the one hand, you have the internet potentially changing language faster because you can be exposed to more new words. You can learn them from people. 

But on the other hand, you have all these tools that are aiming to help us with language. But the way they do that is by predicting stuff that they’ve already seen. And we know that language is fluid and dynamic and changes. It’s part of a living culture. It’s part of living people. 

It never stands still in one spot. But so far, what we have with the tools is only the ability to predict stuff that they’ve already seen before. And that kind of leads to a certain conservatism. 

Like, if they’re only going to predict words that are in the dictionary, if they’re only going to suggest phrases that they’ve seen before, that’s pushing us in a direction of stuff people have already said. 

And we know that the human brain is incredibly generative and creates new words all the time. You can create a new sentence that no one’s ever said before, and it’s not even hard. You can look at your last text messages and pick the last one that had more than 15 words in it, and just search for that phrase in quotation marks. 

And it’s probably no one has ever said this on the internet before. The odds are really high. Like the last sentence you wrote that wasn’t just a stock phrase like, hey, how’s it going, but pick the last phrase that you wrote. Doesn’t have to be funny or original or witty. The last 10-15 word sentence you wrote in an email or text message. Just search it in quotation marks, and probably no one’s said it before. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Well, I like this idea of coming up with original language in a way where all writers– and that makes me want to bring in a caller from Reno, Nevada. Katie, you have a question about, or a thought really about, how the internet affects our speech. 

KATIE: Yeah, I was essentially wondering, like with young people, teens and stuff, how the changes in language online are reflected, because this came from– I was hanging out with a bunch of cousins, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They kept referencing things to me, oh, it’s like this sometimes. I had no idea. So that is sort of like you said, the thought push. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: So Gretchen, we’re looking back at how what is now happening online actually is affecting us in real life, talking to each other. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Yeah, absolutely. There’s some really interesting research by the linguist, Sylvia Sierra, who looks at how people make meme and video game and pop cultural references in conversation. 

And the study group is on late, late millennial Gen X/Xennial group. And she finds, for example, people use, like, Oregon Trail video game references in conversation. Like, you have died of dysentery, et cetera. Because that particular group– but I think it applies to other groups as well. 

And what she notices is that people use these as ways of bonding within a group. So you make a reference other people can understand because it promotes that social bonding thing. 

And you can also use it to diffuse tension. So if you’re bringing up something that’s stressful, like money problems or illness or something like this, you can use that pop culture reference as a way of diffusing that. 

But pop culture references are older than just memes, right? It’s a question of, are you going to make references from movies? Are you going to make references from songs? Are you going to make references from various types of literature, like popular culture? 

And it’s just that the domain for where those pop culture references come from is shifting from not just mass-produced media, but also user-generated media, and it’s a different set of pop culture references. 

Just like your parents, I’d be referring to movies that you’ve never seen before. Your younger cousins referring to memes you’ve also never seen. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Gretchen, this is so wonderful. I could talk to you all day. We’ve run out of time. So I just want to thank you so much for joining us. 

Gretchen McCullough is an internet linguist and she’s the author of the new book, Because Internet, Understanding the New Rules of Language. Thank you for talking me today, Gretchen. 

GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: Thank you so much for having me again.

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